A Bill of Righteous intent

Before the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, there were various efforts at establishing clear policies or practices related to the ownership, scope and providence of so-called user data. While I can’t name them all, I might cite , The Cyberspace Charter of Rights, the DigitalConsumer’s Bill of Rights and then Attention Trust afterwards. This is clearly not a new problem, but it has gained renewed prominence owing to the wide adoption and popularity of social networks.

As such, I want applaud the authors’ effort on pulling this together in a timely fashion, and offering it up to the world to discuss, improve upon, and ultimately see to its implementation.

Because the bill is concise and rather straightforward, I’ll recite the full draft here:

We publicly assert that all users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights, specifically:

  • Ownership of their own personal information, including:
    • their own profile data
    • the list of people they are connected to
    • the activity stream of content they create;
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.

Sites supporting these rights shall:

  • Allow their users to syndicate their own profile data, their friends list, and the data that’s shared with them via the service, using a persistent URL or API token and open data formats;
  • Allow their users to syndicate their own stream of activity outside the site;
  • Allow their users to link from their profile pages to external identifiers in a public way; and
  • Allow their users to discover who else they know is also on their site, using the same external identifiers made available for lookup within the service.

Given that, I’d like to offer some thoughts, context and criticism in the interest of improving the quality and applicability of this work while also enhancing the thinking on these topics.

A little context

It’s first important to note that this Bill of Rights is coming out of a broader context in which we have seen, in just the last few years, a number of large and medium-sized social networks emerge wherein members could not easily migrate from one to another without great cost. That cost comes, rather than in the form of a financial penalty (as in, a fee from your wireless provider for terminating your plan early), but in the amount of time and effort it takes to repopulate your data (whether profile data, blog posts, photos, videos or other original content), to recreate metadata like tags and comments, and to reestablish your relationships from one network to another.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

To understand this Bill (which I’m going to call a manifesto from now on, since there is no means of law enforcement on the web, and a bill tends to precede the establishment of law), you have to know a thing or two about the authors to understand their motivations and goals. Personally, I know Marc, Joseph, Mike and Robert. They’re the types who are first to join new social networks and quite often, are the first to be invited. They are prolific social networkers. I’m one of them, too.

The portability toll

The problem that folks like us face in spreading ourselves across so many networks comes in managing our multi-faceted and disaggregated selves. Given the amount of work spent building up and maintaining armies of friends on each network, we’d like for that work to pay off for a change and follow us around so that we never have to start from scratch again.

This is the problem that Plaxo’s Pulse seems to have set out to solve.

But while I can relate to and do suffer from this “problem”, I’m not convinced that it’s such a massive “problem” for most of the world. (Yet).

On a superficial level, you can infer why such an open and portable data scheme would benefit folks like us. However, such access, in the guise of user rights, would also greatly benefit those who are building applications that leverage or “feed” on aggregated social network data — presently Ning, PeopleAggregator, Pulse and other “digital lifestyle aggregators” (to borrow Marc’s term). Let’s not mince words here: should such a Bill of Rights be implemented universally on all social networks, there would be a number of “host” applications that would immediately benefit, beyond merely the owners of said data.

While avoiding the portability toll is certainly reason enough to rally behind the goals of open data portability, we must also be honest about what other kind of “commercial traffic” we’ll see once we open up the proverbial toll roads. Facebook, for one, certainly has had to make a considerable number of tweaks to its platform in order to protect its members from abuse. And, auto-inviting at sites like Quechup demonstrate other dangers that comes along with making personal and contact data more readily available. The way forward should be towards openness and access, but it must also be in such a way that the benefits are delivered safely.

Inhibiting manifest destiny and protecting the crown jewels

In any case, if we’re to make progress on this topic, we also have to understand a) why this kind of portability hasn’t been embraced heretofore and b) how it has been hindered.

On the first topic, Dare Obasanjo wrote a great post on why social network interop hasn’t — and probably won’t — happen, explaining:

As usual when it comes to interoperability, the primary reasons for lack of interoperability are business related and not technical.

Indeed, we’ve now got microformats and OpenID and previously had FOAF. And regardless of past formats efforts, the technical means for social network portability could easily have been developed had the political will existed and business case been made.

Instead, Dare continues:

Why would Facebook implement a feature that reduced their user growth via network effects? Why would MySpace make it easy for sites to extract user profile information from their service? Because openness is great? Yeah…right.

Openness isn’t why Facebook is currently being valued at $6 billion nor is it why MySpace is currently expected to pull in about half a billion in revenue this year. These companies are doing just great being walled gardens and thanks to network effects, they will probably continue to do so unless something really disruptive happens.

So there’s the business reason, at least for the big sites, why they haven’t gone totally open. Now let’s consider how portability has been effectively hindered on these sites:

  • Paranoia about terms of service: This is the one that’s probably kept most large companies from simply making available the tools or import mechanisms for scraping out each other’s social network infrastructure. Since many Terms of Service prohibit certain access or uses of site data, especially for commercial entities, this kind of functionality tends to be avoided (consider the morass and lawsuits that accompanied the cross-network IM wars).
  • Limited access to data: Of course the most effective way to inhibit cross-polination of data is to simply not make it available. While some sites like Pownce, Twitter and Flickr make their data fairly open and available, many more do not, at least in any publicly consumable or exportable form.
  • Obfuscation of data: Some sites have made their data available, but in arcane or unparseable formats. Just because your data is “open”, doesn’t mean it’s usable. Consider the case of government contractors who make their data available for auditing… in the form of thousands of printed pages. Sure it’s open, but can you really use it? This is something that should be impressed upon in any kind of manifesto or Bill of Rights; unqualified open data is simply not enough!
  • Apathy and/or ignorance: Rather than chalk up the lack of open data to some grand conspiracy theory aimed at keeping us and our data locked up for pure commercial reasons (okay, that is pretty plausible), I imagine that in many cases, the common perception is that the portability of data simply offers no obvious benefits to a site’s members and just isn’t worth the development effort and ignorance exacerbates the problem if it appears that it takes more than 15 minutes to start offering portable data.

So, we now have some ideas about why social networks aren’t more open and how they’ve been kept locked up… but what’s the big deal here, really? Do we really need to pipe our data all around Tarnation to find happiness or what? Wouldn’t we then just end up with a bunch of redundant stuff that’s out of place, out of date and possibly incorrect? Or, if we were able to schlep our stuff freely from one outpost to another, and everything was magically synchronized (OMG, I don’t even want to think about that), what are we now able to do that we weren’t able to do before that’s of any consequence?

I alluded to this earlier, but according to danah boyd, there’s a lot of people who seem really to not mind leaving their profiles (and “internet friends”) behind when they jump sites or — heck — forget their passwords and have to start all over. Is the problem as bad as we, the prolific social networkers with “inhibited manifest destinies”, seem to think it is? Or is this just a problem with the early adopters who have thousands of friends that they seem to think to want to cart around everywhere while they increasingly find themselves with ever-diminishing amounts of time to even “play” social network anymore?

Ah, humbug.

An open, portable, social web

Well, in spite of my arguments to the contrary, I actually quite agree with much of the intent of Open Social Web Manifesto, even if I’d say things and emphasize aspects differently (Flock was my inverse attempt at solving this problem through the ever-present and omniscient web browser, donchaknow!).

For one thing, we actually don’t know what would happen if all (or even some) social network data were truly open and portable. It’s never been done — at least on a grand scale — and as I’m given to the pursuit of institutional transparency, access and openness, it’s something that I think should be done, if only to afford the opportunity to figure out applications later.

So, if we’re talking about portable data, it’s of course important to know which data we’re talking about, and the manifesto handily defines them as:

  • profile data
  • list of friends
  • the “activity stream” (whatever that means)

…but is this list sufficient? Should our access be limited to data that we input into the system? Or should we also be privy to stats and metadata on how our data has been used, analyzed, accessed and provided to partners, measured, used to provision advertising and how it otherwise generates value for the network? I don’t know; I’m just asking.

Because what we’re talking about, and what Brad and Dave have been working at, is opening up the social graph, and arguably, the social graph is made up of more than just identifiers, profiles and the connections between those identifiers and an “activity stream”. Where’s the EXIF data for the social graph that gives us additional and already-known meaning? I’m pretty sure that if Brad has his way and builds his super spider, we will end up with an open social graph whether sites decide to play along or not. That’s tricky but not the hardest part. The hardest part is in the social engineering and politicking towards getting sites and business, across the internet and around the world, to wholly embrace the principles and practices that support and sustain an open, free and fair web (whatever that looks like), not simply in the short term, but for as long at the web exists.

The power of setting a good example

At , I participated in a conversation about positive principles and behaviors that we look for in BarCamp sponsors. The discussion was precipitated by a ban that I instituted against Microsoft for their patent trolling earlier this spring. Over the course of the conversation, I gained a number of valuable insights primarily from Tantek, and I think that they apply here.

First, when I originally announced my decision to ban Microsoft contributions, I made the mistake of pointing to the organization as much as to the behavior I sought to stigmatize. As a result, my primary point was lost amidst perceptions that I was simply unfairly attacking Microsoft simply because they were Microsoft. This couldn’t have been further from the case, given how much good Microsoft and its evangelists have done for the BarCamp community. But because of how I presented things, I lost the opportunity to discuss the offending behavior itself, and ended up debating whether Microsoft deserved to be singled out.

Similarly, I learned that making a public statement on my blog and identifying values, principles or behaviors that I look for in sponsors would likely have gone further towards my goals than narrowly attacking one specific action. While I might have cited the example as a betrayal of the values that I look for, I would have been beyond merely point blame in any single direction, leaving the accused to feel defensive and resentful.

Ok, so how does that apply here?

Well, I think Joseph‘s post summarizes the intent of this effort well: I hope the conversation continues to grow, and I hope this helps both sites and their users clarify how they want the social web to work, so that they can collectively make it so.

They’ve also done us a favor by kicking things off with a manifesto that works for the authors. However, in order for this effort to truly succeed, I think that it’s contingent upon the rest of us to stand up, individually, and put our demands out there in writing, for each other to see and bear witness to, and, where it makes sense, to sign on to each other’s statements where we are in agreement. Conceivably, through a distributed approach to this problem, we will have enough coverage to develop a more powerful and accurate representation of the problems that we want solved by social network openness and data portability.

On top of that, if Joseph is able to get Plaxo to stand up and embrace a subsequent draft of the document, he, through Plaxo, will be demonstrating a very specific kind of leadership and of setting a positive example for others to emulate.

This work has been underway for some time and it’s been given a helpful boost with the co-authoring of this manifesto. As Joseph has done, I invite others to go beyond just signing on to the existing document, but to also take the time to write up your own thoughts on what the open social web should look like and why you think it’s worth the effort to make the changes to make it possible. Remember, we’re trying to change minds and assumptions here. As Tantek encouraged me, I invite you to contribute to this conversation openly and to set the example of the kind of openness and transparency you want to see in the social networks of the web.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

4 thoughts on “A Bill of Righteous intent”

  1. I haven’t read a clearer summary of the debate before.
    The key for the bill of rights might be to model some of it on how the creative commons folks have made their moves.

    Instead of demanding rights, allow for a positive feedback cycle by creating levels of openness that people can advertise in specific ways. I may license my work BY-SA, but others may insist on BY-NC-SA. Each of those has recognizable icons like RSS that indicate what you can get.

    So let me advertise on my site a standard for people’s “mydata” rights. I could say that I keep everything private, but allow openid authentication. Or my social site might let you get an export of any of your data, but not let you link to external signifiers (maybe i’m very concerned about spammers or link farmers…)

    Give me a way to advertise just how open I am that is universally recognizable. Something that implies a CONTRACT of sorts between me and my users. Then you’ve got something.

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